Hamilton

How a transgender Hamilton filmmaker is creating the representation she never had

Growing up in South Africa, Lisa Crawford remembers poring over a book full of cigarette cards that told the story of film.
Lisa Crawford transitioned at 50, and shortly after, decided she wanted a film career. Her second short film, Death Game, premiered at the Toronto Independent Film Festival last week. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Growing up in South Africa, Lisa Crawford remembers poring over a book full of cigarette cards that told the story of film.

It was a thick 1940 book called Cinema Cavalcade, and it had 250 slots for glossy cards that came with packs of MAX Virginia cigarettes. They depicted scenes like Greta Garbo in Anna Christie, and Jean Harlow in The Blonde Bombshell, and Bette Davis in Jezebel.

"I would look at these actresses, the beautiful women on screen, and I would dream that I was born a woman," she recalls. "I would sit on the floor and just dream."

Crawford is 57 now and a Stoney Creek resident, and little by little, her dreams are coming true. Her new short film, Death Game, premiered at the Toronto Independent Film Festival last week. Later this month, she'll fly to the Las Vegas Global Film Festival, where she's up for a best actress award for her first short film, What If?.

Death Game premiered at the Toronto Independent Film Festival last week. (Lisa Crawford)

Crawford's ultimate goal is to tell realistic stories about diverse characters, to provide representation for those who don't have it — including kids like she was, staring at books about old cinema.

"I want more inclusivity," she said. "As a filmmaker, I am planning to include people of all diversities."

Crawford's days of viewing film glamour through cigarette cards began in Durban, South Africa. When she grew up, she worked in the elevator industry, and lived in Curacao for 20 years. She moved to Canada in 2007.

By day, she manages several vending machines, but outside working hours, she has bigger dreams. In 2016, four years after her transition, she took acting lessons in Niagara Falls. Her first role was in a Niagara College student film called Captured. She's landed numerous small parts since then, including a role as a booth matron in the Umbrella Academy.

"I’ve always said transgender people should win Oscars," says Lisa Crawford. For years, "I had to play as being a male and I knew inside I was female." (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

It hasn't been easy. Roles for women in general aged 40 to 60 are tough to find, she said. As for roles for transgender women, that's even more complicated. Most filmmakers, she said, aren't looking for a realistic portrayal.

"I remember an agent once who was looking for transgender people said, 'Not people who pass,'" she said. 

Crawford has made two films so far. What If?, released last year, is a suicide prevention film based on her own experience. Death Game is a made-in-Hamilton film with a mostly female production team, and made with a budget of $1,500. That premiered at the Toronto Independent Film Festival on Sept. 12.

Now she's pitching a documentary show called R U Curious? and co-producing a full-length feature called Mary.

"My dream is to just be producing films," she said. "That's what I'm hoping for with these film festivals. 

"I have a lot of drive and dream."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca